A recent ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court has received praise from Roswell Mayor Timothy Jennings, who believes the decision to allow a challenge to the state’s congressional maps to proceed in a lower court was the right one. In an interview with the Roswell Daily Record, Jennings expressed his approval of the court’s ruling, stating, “They made the right decision.” The litigation, which was initially filed in the Fifth Judicial District Court, was supported by Jennings, a Democrat and former New Mexico Senate Pro Tempore, as well as other petitioners, including the Republican Party of New Mexico.
The court’s ruling was unanimous, with all five justices, comprised of all Democrats, agreeing that the lawsuit should move forward in the lower court. The defendants in the case, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, New Mexico Senate Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart, and former New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, argued that the state’s Constitution does not permit courts to intervene in claims of political gerrymandering or establish clear standards for doing so. However, the justices determined that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution does grant courts a role in resolving such disputes.
In their order, the justices instructed the District Court to take all necessary steps to ensure a resolution in the case by October 1, 2023. The order also provides standards for the district court judge to use in assessing whether the reconfigured districts violate the state’s Constitution.
Jennings expressed his lack of surprise at the court’s decision, noting that many people believed that the Democratic justices would rule against the petitioners. He stated, “They all thought that the Supreme Court would automatically go the other way against this group, and they didn’t.”
The lawsuit was initially filed after the Democratic-led Legislature approved a redistricting plan in 2021, which Gov. Lujan Grisham subsequently approved. Critics, including Jennings, argued that the redistricting plan unfairly favored Democrats by cracking conservative communities of interest and preventing them from having a fair chance at electing a Republican. Specifically, they pointed to the 2nd Congressional District, which had traditionally leaned heavily toward Republicans but shifted to a Democratic advantage, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
Jennings also expressed concerns about the impact of the new districts on the oil industry, which has a significant presence in southeast New Mexico. He believes the districts were designed to weaken the industry’s political influence. Regarding the division of Chaves County among the three districts, Jennings said, “When they put us in three districts in Chaves County, that was crazy.”
Jennings’ comments praising the high court’s move comes after multiple groups comprising Fair Districts New Mexico also supported the New Mexico Supreme Court’s order. The groups included the left-wing League of Women Voters.
The New Mexico Supreme Court’s order followed a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Moore vs. Harper, where a suit claiming that state legislatures have extensive authority over state elections, including redistricting, was rejected. Quinn Yeargin, an assistant professor of law, stated that the outcome of the New Mexico case demonstrates that state court challenges related to political maps will continue after the Moore v. Harper decision. He also noted that while it is difficult to determine the justices’ stance on the constitutionality of the maps, their ruling establishes standards for assessing their constitutionality.
Yeargin anticipates that the Republican challengers will have an opportunity to present their case during the trial, and the challenge will likely return to the New Mexico Supreme Court.